By Joe Ruff
ST. PAUL, Minnesota (CNS) – Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis acknowledged with sadness and apology a federal report released May 11 into the abuse of Native American children at government-supported boarding schools — some run by the Catholic Church, including in Minnesota.
For 150 years, hundreds of these schools have sought to forcefully assimilate Native American and Indigenous children into white society.
“As Bishop of Minnesota, I read with sadness the report of the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative released today by the U.S. Department of the Interior,” Bishop Hebda said in a statement posted on the site. Archdiocesan website.
“This is an important first step in what I anticipate will be a painful but necessary journey for our country and for our church,” the Archbishop said.
In Oklahoma, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop David A. Konderla of Tulsa also called the report a good first step.
“It is important that we understand and appreciate our history so that we can make better and more informed decisions in the future,” they said.
The US Department of the Interior has identified 408 schools in 37 US states or territories that tens of thousands of children were forced to attend from 1819 to 1969.
At least 53 marked and unmarked burial sites are associated with schools, and about 19 of the schools have recorded more than 500 child deaths, according to the report.
The number of recorded deaths is expected to rise, the interior ministry said. The residential school era largely coincided with the forced removal of many tribes from ancestral lands.
Bishop Hebda noted that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has begun working with the tribes on relationship building and reviewing records, an effort described in a special report in the April 28 issue of The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper.
The review and stories of The Catholic Spirit include information on the Archdiocese’s operation of an industrial school near Clontarf, in western Minnesota, which from 1884 to 1892 collaborated with the federal program for the students of the Indian boarding schools.
“Particularly disturbing is that today’s report reveals that the government chose to contract with Christian entities to run some of the schools in the hope that Christian training would eliminate indigenous identity. children brought to these schools,” the Archbishop said.
“The report unfortunately mentions, in addition, the involvement of Catholic organizations in this process,” Bishop Hebda said. “Such instrumentalization of faith or such disrespect for culture is abhorrent. The clear teaching of the Catholic Church today is that Indigenous peoples and cultures are to be respected and never harmed or sacrificed in the name of evangelization.
Pope Francis met with Indigenous leaders in Canada in April to discuss their own experience of residential schools and expressed feelings of grief and shame for the role that a number of Catholics have played in these schools, the Archbishop said.
“Please allow me to also add my sincere apologies to those of Pope Francis,” Bishop Hebda said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the role our church has played in the systemic separation of families by the US government, often leading to the intergenerational trauma experienced by so many of our sisters and brothers.
“There are women and men in our archdiocese and across our state who have personally experienced the boarding school system,” he continued. “They are with us now. Their stories need to be told and we need to listen to them. We must also listen to the voices of the children and grandchildren whose ancestors endured so much pain and death.
In his statement, Bishop Hebda said he met with tribal leaders from across Minnesota in Onamia on Dec. 9 to hear their stories and insights. By this time, archdiocesan staff had already collected and reviewed archdiocesan documents related to residential schools, the archbishop said.
“This work continues today and I am grateful to the experienced professionals leading it,” Bishop Hebda said.
Under the leadership of the Native American Nations of Minnesota, the leadership of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, and the State of Minnesota Catholic Bishops, “a process and portal to share with tribes the records we have uncovered” has been established. , said the Archbishop.
“Whether and how the materials will be made more widely available will be determined in conjunction with the tribes,” he said.
“As an Archdiocese, we will continue to journey with our Indigenous sisters and brothers to explore the ramifications of today’s report and other information that will be produced in the future,” Bishop Hebda continued. “I pledge today that Archdiocesan staff will continue to search our records and testimonies from Native American communities to find the truth, no matter how painful or complicated.”
He urged priests and faithful in the Archdiocese to pray in the meantime that the Holy Spirit “may light a way for all of us as we approach this painful experience in our community as ‘brothers and sisters all’, as Pope Francis reminds us of this”.
In Oklahoma, Archbishop Coakley and Bishop Konderla said the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project was started to learn about the experiences of Native American students and their families at Catholic boarding schools in the state until 1965.
“We hope these projects will help build a culture of inclusion, healing and understanding related to Native Americans in our state,” they said.
Ruff is editor of The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.